A mischievous laugh, unbelievably cool
LISA JARDINE had a gift for making sense of other people’s lives. Some of those people were famous figures from the past (including Bacon, Wren, Hooke and Erasmus) but most were, like myself, humble students who were lucky enough to attend her lectures, and avid readers or listeners who came to know her distinctive voice on the page or over the airwaves.
My first memories of Lisa are of a young lecturer with a mischievous l augh andbrightlydyed hair (the yellow phase, I think, though poss ib l y th e first of the reds), who se e m e d both impossibly learned and unbelievably cool.
I ha d be e n drawn to Lisa’s classes in Cambridge as a visiting undergraduate from America in the mid1980s,andwhenIreturned with a scholarship from Columbia to begin my postgraduate studies, I was delighted to find that she had been assigned as my supervisor. Her rigorous training in textual forensics and rhetorical skill opened up new — and old — worlds to me and have served me well in my own career as a comber of archives, historian of reading and writer of lives.
But, like the others she would take under her wing, Lisa’s formal teaching was only the beginning of what and where we would learn from her. When she heard that I would be on myownforthewinterholidaysinmy first year, she took me in for the first of many family meals: as with the great Renaissance men and women she studied, Lisa’s family extended to her an ever-growing circle of students and collaborators where the distinction between seminar table and dinner table was often lost and where the latest box set by Bob Dylan was as likely to be hauled out as the multi-volume edition of Erasmus’s Latin letters. Generous with chicken soup and unsparing with feedback, Lisa became my surrogate Jewish mother.
Lisa inherited a famous father (Jacob Bronowski) and developed a vast network in some of Britain’s most powerful i nst i t ut i o ns (Cambridge, the BBC and the Houses of Parliament), but she had a deep empathy for outsiders of all kinds— rebels, misfits and migrants. She was the product of one of the 20th century’s great displacements, and felt the plight of our current wave of refugees acutely: the last thing she said to me was “what will we do to help the situation in Syria?” She was committed to the end to making Britain a less strange place for strangers.
The past itself is a foreign country, as L P Hartley observed, and Lisa also made the Renaissance a place where we could feel at home. Having followed her father in moving between the sciences and the arts (switching from mathematics to literature as an undergraduate), she clearlyenjoyedworkingin a period before the great divide between C P Snow’s
But if her intellectual and linguisticrangerecalledthetraining of the Renaissance schoolroom, her professional career looked more and more like a revival of the period’s “civic humanism”, in which the gift of education was to be repaid through active work in the public sphere. She served as a governor of schools, judge of literary prizes, trustee at the V&A and National Archives, president of the British Science Association and head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
She seemed to be living three different lives simultaneously — academic, broadcaster and public servant — and they were sustained by a fourth life, that of wife and mother.
Iwillneverunderstand how one person could have so much energy, such an inexhaustible drive to know, write and talk. Was there any subject about which she did not have a pile of books on her groaning coffee table, any topic about which she did not have something to say?
For someone who spent so much timewritingbiographiesofscholars, scientists and statesmen, Lisa’s own life is peculiarly difficult to reduce to a single category.
Indeed, casting my eye over the shelves full of books she produced, it seems as if most of the titles apply to heraswellastotheiroriginalsubjects. Like the Renaissance period’s great princes, patrons and printers, she gave us a new appreciation of the Worldly Goods that preserve the past for us today.
LikethepioneeringscientistRobert Hooke, she turned nature’s puzzles into Ingenious Pursuits.
Like the architect of St Paul’s and rebuilder of London, Christopher Wren, she worked On a Grander Scale. And like Francis Bacon she was ultimately a Hostage to Fortune — though one that was physical rather than political.
Shepackedmanylivesintotheone she was given and has left a legacy that will live on through the lives of others.
Lisa had deep empathy for outsiders of all kinds — rebels and misfits
Bill Sherman is Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Professor of Renaissance Studies at York University